One of the most contentious issues during the EU Referendum was – it goes without saying – immigration, and specifically the subject of free movement within EU countries. However, the system that enables foreign nationals from other EU member states to be ‘fast-tracked’ into the UK to serve as convenient cheap labour – whether in a Sports Direct sweat-shop or as an au pair to Notting Hill twats – doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to put down permanent roots in Blighty. Many make as much cash as they can and then take it back home; but that fact was glossed over by those who stood to gain from their demonisation as it aided the Brexit cause.
We have been here before, though. Up until the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, all citizens of British colonies and overseas territories had full UK citizenship and were entitled to set up home in the Mother Country. Natives of nations with whom we had long-standing cultural and historical ties had been raised to believe Britain was their homeland, and those who arrived on these shores in the immediate post-war era contrasted with many recent ‘economic migrants’ in that their aim was to build new lives for themselves. Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent racial tensions in areas that experienced high immigration levels in the 60s and 70s. Further moving of the goalposts, not especially aided by the inflammatory language of Enoch Powell, came with other immigration acts in 1968, 1971 and 1981.
Those born in Hong Kong found their status as British subjects particularly affected by these changes; but Mrs Thatcher was aware of China’s impending takeover of our last imperial possession in the Far East and sought to stem an expected tide of immigration from Hong Kong, something that was heightened after the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square. Such circumstances didn’t – and don’t – apply to Britain’s lingering Mediterranean outpost, however. Gibraltar is also uncomfortably close to a large unfriendly neighbour with vague territorial claims, though there is no handover earmarked where Spain is concerned. As a consequence, the 30,000 strong population there is often more defiantly British than Britain itself.
Since being ceded to Britain in perpetuity as part of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht – following its capture by an Anglo-Dutch force during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1704 – Gibraltar has been a permanent thorn in the side of relations between Britain and Spain, often surfacing in the most bizarre manner, such as accusations that General Franco ‘fixed’ it so that Cliff’s ‘Congratulations’ lost the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest to the Spanish entry at the eleventh hour. Its status as a British Overseas Territory may seem antiquated today, but its origins as such are very much in tune with how European powers settled disagreements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, using the odd strategic island or peninsular as bargaining chips. Cyprus was acquired by Britain from the Ottoman Empire in not dissimilar circumstances.
The nascent Brexit negotiations have already thrust Gibraltar back onto the front pages; lest we forget, though, Gibraltar voted overwhelmingly in favour of Remain during the EU Referendum last year, being the first result to be declared that eventful evening – something that gave false hope to Remainers in the UK. The revelation that a clause in draft guidelines drawn up by Brussels mandarins suggests Brexit negotiations won’t include Gibraltar unless there is an agreement between Spain and the UK has provoked anger both here and on the Rock.
The draft negotiating guidelines state: ‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’ In response, Andrew Rosindell, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Gibraltar, commented: ‘British people must and will stand together. We cannot be bullied by Spain. Any agreement must apply equally to the whole British family and that includes Gibraltar. There can be no compromise on this.’
Spain’s claims on Gibraltar have no more proper legal standing than Argentina’s claims on the Falklands, so to evoke the Spanish on this issue was guaranteed to enflame patriotic passions. Both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have responded to the EU proposals re Gibraltar by emphasising again that the concerns of the people of Gibraltar will not excised from the negotiations. And it’s worth remembering that Gibraltarians have twice voted overwhelmingly ‘no’ to shared sovereignty between the UK and Spain in referendums (in 1967 and 2002); moreover, the border between Spain and Gibraltar was only permanently opened after decades of petulance on the part of the Spanish when Spain joined the EEC in 1985.
If one excludes the Episkopi Cantonment enclave of Cyprus, essentially a military anomaly since the island’s independence in 1960, Gibraltar is unique amongst the fourteen remaining British Overseas Territories in that it is not some distant landmass in the Caribbean or South Atlantic, but essentially sits on Britain’s doorstep. Its presence during the EU Referendum may have seemed incongruous, considering it has no British Parliamentary constituency, but it certainly had a right to be there.
Whether or not one believes leftovers from the Empire should be ceded to their nearest neighbours, the Gibraltarians themselves are steadfast in their loyalty to the Crown and their preferences should be taken into account. It appears yet one more strand to the tangled web of Brexit needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.
© The Editor